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Grain bin operators’ failure to protect workers is unconscionable

Looking back, 2013 may be known as the year of grain bin. First, NPR and the Center for Public Integrity launched an investigation into the grain bin industry and its high rates of fatalities. It found that OSHA fines resulting from employee deaths were often reduced and employers were rarely held accountable.  

Then, OSHA renewed its efforts in offering safety guidance for grain bin operators in how to improve worker health at grain facilities. Last week, it launched safety initiatives in Wisconsin, Ohio, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Illinois. It reiterated the dangers of working in grain bins and emphasized how quickly a hazard such as grain entrapment can kill a worker.  

But in the past couple of weeks, two Indiana workers were killed in grain bin incidents at the Union Mills Co-op and in Veedersburg. But even more tragic is the knowledge that these deaths could have been prevented.  

Though the media has framed these incidents as workplace accidents, the hazards associated with grain bin work, such as the high risks of explosions or suffocations, are well known and well documented. Employers’ failure to address these hazards and prevent these deaths is unconscionable.

While the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had never inspected the Union Mills plant, the agency has warned for years about the hazards associated with grain bin work.

OSHA sent letters to every grain facility in the country in the past couple of years about how to protect workers in grain bins. But those letters weren’tenough.

“We” d get called in after a worker was entrapped in grain, and you” d see my letter posted on the wall, so you know they didn’talways work,” OSHA Chief Dr. David Michaels said at a policy summit last year.

Grain bin operators continue to put their employees in harm’s way.

A report this month from Purdue University found that a record number of workers were killed in grain bins in 2010; that year, 26 workers were killed and 57 were trapped in grain bins. Since 1964, more than 660 farmers and workers have died in more than 1,000 grain entrapments, a recent investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity revealed.

Given the huge amount of publicity given to grain bin deaths as of late, there is no chance that grain bin operators were unaware of these hazards. But workers at grain facilities continue to die on the job.

If someone drives recklessly on a residential street and kills a pedestrian, we treat this as a negligent homicide. It is time that we started treating entirely preventable workplace incidents the same- not as unforeseeable “accidents.” Hard-working employees deserve to earn a paycheck without having to risk their lives. Workers at grain facilities- and in all industries- have a human right to a safe and healthy workplace.